Hungry? Here's Some Food For Thought

    Imagine this scene: Twenty-five UCSD students and a man named Jim Stephens are out early on a typical Saturday morning collecting food from local businesses. They spend all morning packing it up to distribute to the hundreds of homeless people in San Diego.

    Kennrick Leung

    Sounds nice, right? Except that it’s illegal.

    These UCSD students are actually volunteers for the organization called Food For Thought. At the heart of the organization is Stephens, its founder. Stephens is a former New York attorney turned homeless advocate. However, this organization is not what it may seem.

    Food For Thought is not an official nonprofit organization, and Stephens himself has been arrested for serving food without a health permit.

    Stephens thinks that the people preventing him from operating legally — namely, the city government — are “”flat-worlders:”” people who think that the world is still flat. According to Stephens, government officials can’t understand why businesses will donate food and why people volunteer to hand it out when Food For Thought lacks any kind of official status. As a result, the local government does not feel that it’s necessary to provide funding for Food For Thought.

    Despite such setbacks, Stephens and the student volunteers continue their mission to help feed the homeless. Stephens says his motivation comes from his experiences after leaving a job on Wall Street to voluntarily aid the homeless for a year. What he found out is that homeless people live in constant fear of the police and must deal with not knowing where their next meal is going to come from.

    “”When I see the homeless, something inside me feels broken,”” Stephens said. “”I have tried to turn my talents toward healing this wound I feel and healing the community at the same time.””

    So, who exactly is this guy? While Stephens appears to be just a concerned citizen who enjoys making contributions to the local community, his past often overshadows his current persona. In addition to having a high-paying job in the business sector, Stephens was once a professional runner, a Navy Seals Challenge champion and a 24 Hour Fitness Triathlon Challenge national champion. He has won numerous marathon races in the past and professionally coaches through his Tri San Diego Multi-Sport Training Camps.

    Besides feeding the homeless, Stephens continually tries to use his experience as an athlete to motivate the homeless to take control of their lives. In January of 1995, Stephens sponsored some of these same homeless people in the San Diego Marathon and even bought them all tennis shoes to use in the event.

    Steve Thompson, one of the race entrants, praised Stephens’ efforts.

    “”Life on the streets is similar to being in a daze, and I finally woke up,”” Thompson said. “”There are a lot of people out there who will not wake up, but if all the talent on the street were to wake up, we could build a city.””

    But if Stephens seems like your average wealthy philanthropist, don’t be fooled. For all his contributions to the community, Stephens also possesses somewhat of a dark past.

    Years ago, when Stephens left Wall Street, he didn’t do so voluntarily. He was fired for stealing from the company he worked for.

    “”Being revealed as a thief among Wall Street attorneys was not as disturbing as knowing that my more experienced colleagues were getting away with it,”” Stephens said.

    Still intrigued? There are also rumors that Stephens has been arrested several times for drug abuse. So what is the motivation for this triathlete, ex-Wall Street lawyer and suspected drug user to feed the homeless, and what’s in it for him?

    Apparently nothing. Stephens claims that he is a pseudo-educator trying to expose UCSD students to the homeless situation to show them what the “”real world”” is like.

    One of the biggest challenges Stephens says he faces each day is handing out food in a place that the police don’t know about. The Planet Hollywood restaurant in downtown was a central meeting place to pass out food until the business tenants in that area started complaining to the San Diego Police Department about the large number of homeless people loitering in the area.

    For Stephens, this only confirmed his feelings about the city’s mission to prevent Food For Thought from competing with other local organizations such as St. Vincent de Pauls.

    According to Rivers Morrel, a Muir student and Food For Thought volunteer, there is a large level of uncertainty associated with the organization.

    “”We are not really sure where we are going to hand out food,”” Morrel said. “”The city refuses to issue us a health permit because they are so worried that we won’t be making any money for them.””

    As a result, the organization continues to operate underground. Volunteers must make sure they don’t attract attention when food is being handed out, and both the volunteers and those they feed must hear about the trips by word of mouth.

    Morrel claims that notifying the homeless of the trips is not terribly difficult.

    “”Almost 80 percent of the same homeless people show up every time,”” he said.

    Morrel also said that one of the organization’s main goals is to reinvent the current homeless program infrastructure because of the inefficiencies inherent in the current system.

    While the organization continues to assemble volunteers, it must do so in an indirect manner. While it is not recognized as a nonprofit organization, and is not officially affiliated with UCSD, Food For Thought? continues to overcome obstacles to provide for San Diego’s homeless population.

    “”Our goal has been pushed back by bureaucratic red tape,”” Stephens said.

    The department on urban policy for the city of San Diego could not be reached for comment.

    For more information on Stephens or Food For Thought visit his organization’s Web site at WWW.JAMESSTEPHENS.ORG.

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